Review: 四马路 Four Horse Road by The Theatre Practice
History comes alive in The Theatre Practice’s most ambitious project yet.
Waterloo Street has become one of our most frequented areas in Singapore, serving as home to both The Theatre Practice and Centre 42. But in the rush of life we’re constantly caught up in, it’s very rare we get a chance to truly appreciate just how well preserved the buildings they’re housed in are, and think about the decades of history and by extension, stories, that seethe through their walls.
The Theatre Practice then, has taken it upon themselves to embark on a project of epic proportions, both in in scale and vision, to bring the area’s history to life. Taking over neighbouring buildings Centre 42 and the Chinese Calligraphy Centre, in addition to their own, Four Horse Road uses these spaces and stories of the area from the past 150 years as its foundations for a theatre experience like no other. Through Four Horse Road, director Kuo Jian Hong sought to highlight the beauty and magnificence of the area’s histories through well-researched stories of the past and charting the district’s spectrum of cultures and races, culminating in the final ten stories curated for the performance, taking place across various locations amongst the three buildings. But being a theatre company, beyond simply telling these stories, each tale is brought to life in performances that overflow with genuine sincerity in wanting to make audience members feel the era and emotions that course through each of these stories. Each story is incredibly well researched, with actors trained to capture the essence, accent and feel of their characters, and the entire experience flows without a single hitch, smooth as clockwork as audience members step into TTP’s magic realism to traverse time and space, almost as if they are quite literally reliving each of these deeply personal, yet affecting and significant lives.
With 10 stories across 3 buildings, over 20 cast members, 60 staff and 180 participants each night, it’s an experience that can potentially feel very overwhelming, if not for how well-organised the entire project is and how TTP helps guide you through every step of the way. Starting off at The Theatre Practice itself, audiences begin their trek into history as they watch members of the company moving props and furniture from their previous space at Stamford Arts Centre into the new venue at 54 Waterloo Street. But the seemingly ordinary gives way to the extraordinary when the team accidentally knocks a hole through a wall, revealing a hidden storeroom containing belongings to countless people from the past. Time and space begin to warp, and ‘tour guides’ emerge as a multiracial group of early immigrants, ranging from Chinese bao-selling women, to coolies. Each of the six tour guides then gathers the audience into groups, determining the path and selection of stories that each audience members experience over the night by handing out different coloured backpacks to each group. The sense of immersion into time and place is immediate – from the moment we step out onto the street, we’re already walking past a group of Indian nationals gathered in a group, and the realism is uncannily strong; one feels as if we’ve entered a space independent of the rules of physics, as we transition between the modern world and historical one seamlessly.
Brace yourself, as we take you on a journey to places past and the experience we had on our epic, time-bending trip down Four Horse Road. As we began, we stepped back into 1978 to experience the heady energy of youth with Bus Hijack. Taking place outdoors, TTP’s production value here is unparalleled, having set up realistic bus seats while audience members can even hear the low buzz of an ‘engine’ in the background, feeling exactly as if we were actually in a bus from that era. Starring Yazid Jalil as a young Malay teenager taking a bus on a joyride while unbeknownst to him bus driver Johnny Ng is asleep in the back, both actors made us feel like a part of the journey, and excelled at bringing out the emotions and thrill of the ride. Being on the bus itself, one felt the nervous energy of other audience members around us as the actors brought us straight into their world, afraid for ours and its passengers’ lives as we (metaphorically) hurtled through streets and watched both Johnny and Yazid display increasing concern for the eventual fate of the joyride.
Taking yet another step back in time, we headed over to Centre 42 and found ourselves at the Nantina Home for the Aged and Destitute in 1952, listening to stories from lonely senior citizens, as various cultures, languages and backgrounds come together in a single space. It’s interesting how an old folks home becomes a liminal space for all these cultures and stories to come together, with residents hailing from various backgrounds sharing in Teochew, English and Chinese, allowing for almost every audience member to find one person they could understand and listen to. We were completely enraptured by Lim Poey Huang as Madam Ng, a wheelchair bound Teochew woman yammering on about life. Advised by the enthusiastic, taitai-like Chairwoman of Chinese Woman’s Association Madam Teo (Ng Mun Poh) to tell a more interesting, personal story, Madam Ng quickly changed stance, taking on a more maternal, grandmotherly role as she handed out cream crackers from her rusty biscuit tin, shifting to a riveting tale of the trauma of living through the Japanese Occupation and the difficulty of life in the 40s, capturing our hearts with the emotion in her voice with the ‘experience’ she’d suffered. Meanwhile, Al-Matin Yatim, as old Mr Irwan, chimed in with a supernatural tale of the Orang Minyak, or Oily Man. You’d think that sounds a little silly, but with his charisma and genuine fear in his voice, you could swear the the Orang Minyak of Malay legend was creeping up behind you at that very moment, ready to pounce, and we too felt that his paranoia was completely warranted, looking over our shoulder from time to time to ensure that we weren’t going to be taken by surprise by an unsavoury monster.
With the scent of burning joss paper and incense in the air, we already knew we were approaching the temple. Set in 2017, Mohammed Shafie plays a temple worker selling flower garlands while Sugie Phua plays a mainland Chinese hotel concierge, representing the denizens of a Temple and Hotel respectively. A story of unity for our modern times, the story was an inspired way of viewing the parallels and crossroads between religions, showing how both Indian and Chinese people both found solace in Guanyin and an unexpected bond develops between the two when they both realise they’re burning incense for the same goddess. Taking place in an alleyway, we were privy to this intensely personal discussion between both characters, and at one point, when Sugie mentions how ‘Singapore is very confusing’, with its mix of cultures and practices, we were struck by how much it resonated with us, and how the line effectively highlighted our hodgepodge, dynamic uniquely Singaporean culture. Eventually finding a point of connection despite their differences, The Hotel and the Temple was a heartwarming and relevant tale for the modern times that emphasised the ever growing importance of finding similarities amidst contrasting faiths and beliefs.
Raising the stakes more than ever and taking us into the historic May Blossom Hotel in 1942, we landed right in the heart of a hostage situation where Japanese Major Onishi (Johnny Ng) and German Major Wortmann (Andrew James Mowatt) are held up at gunpoint by resistance fighters, in exchange for the release of their MPAJA leaders. Anti-Japanese sentiment being high at the peak of World War II, one felt the nailbiting tension in the air as the Majors and MPAJA shrewdly negotiated release terms. Lined with neon lights, the room appropriately conveyed the tense mood of the situation, while Ethel Yap, as resistance fighter Eng Min Chin, put her voice to good use as she sang the Japanese folk song Sakura while in disguise as a singer. Amidst the chaos and confusion of the scenario, the cast felt well-prepared and well-rehearsed, allowing the stress experienced by each character to fill the space and leave the audience worried for the final outcome.
Just like any history lesson needs a break, it was about time for a bit of comic relief and sit back, relax and enjoy some light hearted stories. With our tour guide leading us to TTP’s Tuckshop, we were given a bit of comic relief with Tikam Tikam. Set in 2018, we watched as Jo Tan and Petrina Kow starred as the operators of a quirky ice ball stall. Taking us back to our childhood days of the affordable ice dessert, both actresses brought with them an infectious energy as they hyped up the audience spinning the rainbow-hued tikam tikam “Wheel of Gushi (故事)”, rewarding audiences with not only an anecdote of Waterloo Street, but also a colourful ice ball when it stopped! Petrina’s storytelling skills here are on full throttle, and her old wives’ tales made us more interested than ever in the fictions surrounding Waterloo Street, entering a trance-like state as she regaled us with her tale of the supernatural, almost as if she herself was possessed by a storytelling spirit as we sat enraptured and sucking on our syrupy ice balls.
But it wasn’t long before it was time to return to the realm of the dramatic with Stained Glass. Once again set in 1942 during World War II, this scene takes place at TTP’s office, while the Jewish Shulman family busies themselves packing up to flee. But their packing is interrupted by Sister Choo (Gloria Ang) and Brother Kwan (Ric Liu), the latter a Catholic boy in a clandestine relationship with Rada Shulman (Elizabeth Sergeant), against the Shulmans’ strict family wishes. Knowing the Shulman family’s strict upbringing and refusal to enter into relationships outside of her religion, her decision to keep her rosary beads carefully hidden became all the more significant, and we felt personally invested in Elizabeth Sergeant’s portrayal of the conflicted Jewish girl, torn between blood relatives and family. A lot of research has evidently gone into getting the accuracy of the accents right, and this contributed immensely to the sincerity and believability of the scene, making for a conflict rife with emotional tension and a genuine investment into the success of the relationship.
In our final story of the night, we were whisked away to the Red Light District of 1915, during a Sepoy Mutiny happening during Yuanxiao Festival. Initially festive in nature, Red Light District features a whopping 9 cast members playing prostitutes and their handlers. The mutiny is wonderfully dramatised by the colourful cast of characters, showcasing the entire spectrum of cultures and backgrounds, from kimono-clad Karayuki-san to cheongsam-donning Ah Kus to even a Russian lady of the night, each one of the cast members displaying a wide range of accents and languages of the era, with authentic sounding Hokkien, Russian and Japanese coming together surprisingly well, and the beauty of communication in simple Chinese a great way of showcasing the common threads that bind them. One feels the strange camaraderie displayed during the chaos of the meeting, and is fascinated by the ways in which the group found common ground, and showcased both entertainment quality and serious historic significance in the gorgeous costumes and superb portrayal of the 1910s.
Is Four Horse Road one of the most ambitious original theatre projects this year? The answer is a resounding yes. And under Jian Hong’s vision and the teamwork of countless collaborators both onstage and off (there are over 60 people working behind the scenes), Four Horse Road puts the ‘story’ in history, successfully excavating some of the best tales surrounding its eponymous street and breathes life into them, resulting in a magnificent set of performances. High production value from inventive designers, a dream cast of some of the most talented actors, and running smooth as clockwork, Four Horse Road is the epic tale of Singapore you never knew you wanted, and leaves you more curious than ever about the endlessly fascinating history and future of this heritage district.
Photo Credit: The Theatre Practice
Performance attended 4/4/18
Four Horse Road plays at The Theatre Practice from 4th – 28th April. Tickets available from SISTIC